7 April 09 | Chad W. Post

Last Thursday was “Open Letter Day” at the Harvard Crimson, as the university daily newspaper covered three new Open Letter books: The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch, Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda, and Landscape in Concrete by Jakov Lind. (Typically, these links would be to our Indie Bookstore of the Month, but Shaman Drum’s online catalog doesn’t have listings for these three titles . . . )

Will Fletcher’s review of The Mighty Angel really captures the humor and horror of this book:

he modern literary tradition—in particular, the Lost Generation writers and their contemporaries—has done something curious in romanticizing the throes of alcoholism. Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald were all raging alcoholics and filled their novels with characters who acted likewise. But never before, and rarely today, does a novelist confront addiction so intimately and personally as Jerzy Pilch in his recently translated novel, The Mighty Angel.

It’s unclear for whom the narrative is intended. As the narrator, Jerzy speaks to himself, speaks to his lover, speaks to himself again (this time sober), speaks to the girl in the yellow dress, and—it seems—speaks to us as well. In his own words, he is “writing about you and [he’s] writing about [himself] not only to show that true alcoholic prose does not end in death; it ends in life, and who knows how life will end.” His ambivalence towards alcohol abuse—and, for that matter, toward any direction for his life in general—composes the novel’s substance. This ambiguity forces Jerzy to face a constant struggle: “. . . therapists are striving to bring reality to the point of sobriety, whereas I’m striving to bring reality to the point of literature, and at a certain moment our paths inevitably diverge.”

And Jenny Lee’s praise of Landscape in Concrete is spot-on:

The dreamlike quality of the novel emanates from Lind’s ability to create sparse but symbolic landscapes and to fill them with characters whose simple exteriors incapsulate deeper historical echoes. Of course, the enchanting essence of the story is much more akin to that of the original Grimm stories than their doe-eyed Disney counterparts (it revolves around shocking wartime occurrences) but Lind’s gift for eccentric descriptions of characters and events transforms the more gruesome and explicit scenes into something strangely pallatable. Lind’s descriptions endow the starved, inhuman, and ruthless characters of the war with unreal qualities that make the whole narrative easier to digest.

Unfortunately, you can’t always go three-for-three, and in this case, it was Death in Spring that fell a bit short of Keshava Guha’s expectations:

While reading Death in Spring, Mercè Rodoreda’s final work, it is easy to forget how unlikely the publication of the book is. In Francisco Franco’s anti-Catalan Spain, Rodoreda faced not only suppression and exile but the extinction of her native language. Under Franco, Catalan’s very existence was threatened, banned outright in the public sphere and severely curtailed in the private sphere. In this context, while translations of Spanish language novels achieved worldwide fame and renown in the 1970s and 1980s, Catalan writers remained obscure, even after Franco’s death in 1975, when the ban on Catalan was lifted. With her translation of Death in Spring, Martha Tennent hopes to begin to redress this historic injustice.

How deeply unfortunate, then, that the novel itself cannot live up to the promise of a hidden classic. A brief work of only 150 pages, told in dense four-page episodes, Death in Spring creates a world at once strange and familiar: a nameless town characterized by brutal, gratuitous violence and the prevalence of the bizarre, narrated through an unusual set of eyes—those of a teenage boy. Rodoreda’s narrator is a remarkably dispassionate protagonist, remarking in turns on the macabre and the surreal with unflinching ambivalence.

Nevertheless, here’s one more instance of how the Harvard Crimson is one of the absolute best college newspapers out there. Good taste aside, how many other college papers review three literary titles in one day?


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